Panama’s largest indigenous group, the Ngöbe–Buglé, made international headlines in February 2012 when nationwide protests against government mining and development concessions led to the closure of the Pan-American highway and two deaths, 40 injured and more than 100 arrests.
Recently, indigenous concerns regarding the use of natural resources in Panama returned to the forefront of attention with the visit of James Anaya, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, from July 19 to 26.
Anaya, who first travelled to the country in 2009 to assess the situation of Ngöbe–Buglé communities affected by the Chan 75 hydroelectric project, highlighted that the recognition and protection of indigenous territories and natural resources continues to be a major concern for Panama’s Indigenous Peoples.
The rapporteur described the case of the hydroelectric power dam Barro Blanco as the most “emblematic” case of large-scale inversion projects that have led to allegations of human rights abuses.
“The Ngöbe people should have been consulted adequately before concessions for this hydroelectric project were granted,” Anaya said.
Law 11, which requires a referendum in the indigenous territory to approve future hydroelectric projects and ceased mining concessions, followed an accord between the government and indigenous authorities as a result of the violent protests of 2012. However, the legislation allowed the existing Barro Blanco project, which began construction in February 2011, to continue.
While the Barro Blanco hydroelectric project is located outside of the Ngöbe–Buglé comarca, a semi-autonomous administrative region in the northwest of Panama, its reservoir is expected to flood lands that will directly affect indigenous people. According to the president of the Ködriri Regional Congress, Toribio García, the reservoir is expected to directly displace 150 families and indirectly affect up to 17,000 people. The hydroelectric dam would also limit access to food resources and flood ancient petroglyphs in the Tabasará River, which have cultural and historical significance, as well as religious importance to believers of the Mamatata religion.
“The lands of the Ngöbe people should not be flooded or affected in any other way without a previous accord with the representative authorities about the conditions of this flooding,” Anaya said. “I encourage the different parties to continue with this process of dialogue to reach a consensual solution based on the full respect of territorial rights of the Ngöbe people and the communities that are directly affected.”
Celio Guerra, President of the General Congress of the Ngöbe–Buglé Indigenous and Campesino People, expressed disappointment at this recommendation.
“We hoped that, in light of the reiterated violence against our people, the rapporteur would suggest that the government cancel the project,” Guerra said. “A negotiated solution is an unrealistic option given the continued human rights violations. We will convene our communities and analyze the rapporteur’s report and then decide our next steps.”
As part of his visit, Anaya traveled to the comarca to hear firsthand the concerns of those affected by various violations. At an event organized by the General Congress of the Ngöbe–Buglé Indigenous and Campesino People on July 20, 19 speakers representing diverse political associations and regional leaders addressed the rapporteur in front of a crowd of more than 200 people from across the comarca. Among the violations, the speakers cited police brutality and state-led repression, mining concessions that will displace indigenous people outside of the comarca, and lack of access to justice, food security, health, and education.
The traditional leadership of the Ngöbe–Buglé also denounced that the Panamanian government violated the people’s right to self determination with the approval of Decree 537, a law that was passed without consultation and created a new electoral system that allegedly facilitated access to natural resources.
“While in some comarcas I have seen authority exercised in an exemplary manner, in other cases there is ambiguity regarding the appointment of leadership,” Anaya said. “The state should respect Indigenous Peoples’ own processes when selecting their leaders.”
Anaya, who also visited the Gunayala and Emberá Wounaan comarcas, will release a full report and present it to the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2014. Among his preliminary recommendations he urged the Panamanian government to ratify the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention on the Rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, No.169. In September 2007, Panama voted in favor of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.